The one thing on this crazed media beat that I know for sure as 2018 comes to an end is that its biggest story line is Trump vs. Mueller. And in recent weeks, that narrative has only been building — to the point that it feels as if some sort of breakthrough, or reveal, to use the language of reality TV, is coming soon.
The conflict between these opposite American types started out as a politics and justice story in May 2017 when former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III was named special counsel to investigate the possibility of Russian meddling in the election of Donald Trump in 2016. And that was plenty big enough in its own right
But it is has now grown into a political, entertainment and cultural story as well. In fact, it is the most potent narrative — fiction or nonfiction — in all those realms.
I believe the showdown between these two men has become not only the most important story in American life but a struggle for the very soul of this nation. And when people ask me why we in the media spend so much time talking about Trump and Mueller, that is the ultimate answer.
At times, even I feel sick of constantly hearing about Trump and Mueller and all the “dirty deeds” allegedly committed by some of the president’s men and women — to use the language of Michael Cohen, the president’s former attorney who is going to jail for three years for some of his deeds on behalf of Trump. But even as I want to tune out the media drumbeat of this drama, I also know we are at one of those epic crossroads in the life of this democracy, and this is the story that will determine which way we go. Staying 1,000 percent tuned into it is crucial.
Screenwriters could not have invented more dueling types representing dominant and conflicting aspects of the American character. Mueller represents (or at least presents himself as) a model of citizenship and leadership that includes a major commitment to serving the public interest of the nation. Trump is all about private gain for himself and his family. Mueller’s career has been defined by respect for the rule of law, while Trump, mentored by the infamous and disbarred Roy Cohn, has a record of pushing the limits or flouting the law altogether to get what he wants. Mueller is rectitude, Trump is transgression.
Mueller is what was once known as the strong, silent type — so tight-lipped I cannot remember hearing a live soundbite from him since he became special prosecutor. Trump starts running his mouth through Twitter rants before sunrise on some days. Mueller seems almost ascetic in his commitment to his federal job. Trump is the hedonist down in Mar-a-Lago with his faux-gold toilets, playing golf and complaining about what a “dump” the White House is.
Mueller is a modern-day FBI version of government agent Eliot Ness. Trump is the wannabe mafia don who calls his former attorney a “rat” for cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. (I want to make a joke about Trump seeing “Wise Guys” or “The Godfather” films one too many times, but this is the man responsible for children being separated from their parents at the border. We can no longer afford the luxury of laughing at the things he does.)
The entertainment and cultural archetypes at the heart of this showdown reach beyond contemporary American life. At 74 and previously retired from government service, Mueller is also a version of the frontier lawman who lays down his guns and goes back to his farm, only to be called back into action for a high-noon showdown with the gang that rode into town one day and now threatens all law-abiding citizens and any notion of civic peace and decency. That, in itself, is a trope that goes all the way back to ancient Rome and Cincinnatus, who came to represent the epitome of civic virtue by doing the same. Whether we are fully aware of them or not, such narratives are grooved into our brains and we use them to help make sense of new and troubling developments like the ugly conflicts in American life today.
It’s not just that Trump and Mueller seem to be everywhere in the media these days. It’s what those names and the media images of the men behind them have come to mean in the popular imagination that give this narrative such an extra jolt of psychic energy.
In the summer of 2017, reacting to the spike in TV news time spent on Trump, Russia and the new special prosecutor, I wrote about how we as a nation seemed hopelessly distracted by a then 71-year-old, narcissistic media addict in the White House and a cable news industry that couldn’t get enough of him.
I described the Trump presidency as a nonstop, unscripted cable TV production starring the president and a cast of supporting characters ranging from his smug senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner to skeezy Steve Bannon, the ousted White House chief strategist.
I included Mueller, whom I described as the one force of moral authority in this sleazy production, but I saw him at the time only as a supporting player. The president was the one totally controlling the show and, to an inordinately large degree, the national agenda via his words and actions in the white House and on Twitter, Facebook and cable TV.
But Mueller, without saying a word on cable TV or firing off a single tweet, now has a starring role equal to Trump’s. It’s tempting to think Trump is fighting a media war while Mueller is quietly doing his job, but the special counsel has proved to possess an uncanny sense of timing in the way he speaks through indictments and court filings. Trump can upend the cable TV universe in 140 characters or less, sending talking heads chattering all day about what he said, but Mueller can actually establish the facts, and that is at the heart of what makes this conflict between him and the president epic as we head into what feels like it might be the final act. This is now a narrative that Trump does not — cannot — control.
Focus on that, all ye who would lose hope for democracy; Trump does not control where this story goes.
With the steady flow of indictments, pleas and recent high-profile sentences involving characters like Cohen, Mueller is the one now driving the narrative bus and to a larger extent determining what the media will be talking about. Trump, uncharacteristically, is more and more often forced to react to what the special counsel is doing — and his stock reactions of “witch hunt” and “no collusion” are sounding weaker and emptier by the tweet as his associates talk about his “dirty deeds” and go to jail for them.
That drumbeat will continue in coming weeks and months with the sentencing of former Trump campaign manger Paul Manafort scheduled for February in federal court and more filings by Mueller’s office in the pipeline.
Already since the most recent Mueller filings, there are stories in The Washington Post showing how virtually every business Trump has ever been involved in is now under investigation. The New York Times and other mainstream publications are filled with references to the “walls closing in” on the president.
Or, in the language of TV tropes and American archetypes, the G-man is closing in on the con man.
And all that’s at stake in this story line is what kind of an America we are going to find ourselves living in once the final credits on Trump vs. Mueller roll.